A while back, I was at a family team meeting (“FTM”), and a mom had a meltdown because she thought she was going to be able to have overnights soon with her son. Keep in mind that DHS never gives an unqualified promise that this will happen; it’s usually couched in terms of, “If things continue to go well…” But of course, parents don’t hear that part. Or else their definition of “things going well” differs from DHS’ definition. Unfortunately, they often tell their kids that something is going to happen, and then when it doesn’t, it looks like another broken promise. That’s why I always caution my parents to not make those kinds of promises. There are too many variables to guarantee it.
In this case, there were some behavioral issues in the child that were showing up at school after increased visits with mom. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that mom is doing anything wrong. Our little people have trouble managing their emotions sometimes, whether good or bad, and this will often show up in undesirable behavior. In those situations, we usually want to slow down the process a bit to give them time to adjust and adapt. This isn’t about the parent—it’s about the child, which is, of course, our primary concern.
But that was not mom’s perspective. She felt like she had (in her words), “jumped through all the hoops” that DHS had required, and still wasn’t getting overnight visits. DHS tried to explain that this wasn’t a reward/punishment thing, but mom was clearly not hearing that—or at least not believing it.
The thing is, both of them were right.
I tell my parents at the beginning of a case that they have the greatest influence over the outcome of the case. If they do everything that DHS and the court are asking them to do, there is usually no reason why they shouldn’t get their kids back. At its most basic, then, we are telling parents that if you do X, you will be “rewarded” with Y (the return of your children). If you don’t do X, you will be “punished” by having your parental rights terminated. But that’s not exactly right.
The reason we ask parents to do certain things is not to simply make them “jump through hoops” to earn back their children. It’s to help them become healthy so their children can be safely returned to them. We need to do a much better job at explaining whythey are being asked to do these things, because their understanding of the “why” can fundamentally change how they approach the “what.”
If you ask them why they are being asked to do certain things, and their response is, “Because DHS told me to,” then you know they have the wrong “why.” This response indicates an external motivation, rather than an internal inspiration.
Craig Groeschel describes the difference between motivation and inspiration this way: Motivation suggests that (in this case) DHS is pushing parents to do something they don’t want to do. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a pull towards a desirable result that is internally driven. External motivation is far less sustainable over the long term than internal inspiration.
If parents are doing something “because DHS told [them] to do it,” then as soon as the case closes and DHS is out of the picture, they will stop doing whatever “it” is (e.g., therapy, substance use after care, etc.). They run the risk of falling back into old habits, which can sometimes result in another removal.
If parents are doing something because they want to get (and remain) healthy and successfully parent their kids, they will keep doing what they know helps them get and stay healthy, even when DHS is no longer in the picture.
Mom’s lament that she was jumping through hoops but never getting overnight visits suggests she is doing things from the “external motivation” side of things. She needs to rethink the “why” of what she is doing from a different perspective so she can focus on taking actions that are best for the child, rather than just checking things off a list.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s never appropriate to challenge DHS “foot-dragging.” They are overworked and often overly cautious. But I always try to challenge it in the context of what’s best for the family. In other words, to say, “You have asked my client to do X, Y, and Z, and he’s done all three of those things successfully, which demonstrates that he is able to safely parent his child and should get increased visits.”This acknowledges the “hoops,” but within the context of the larger goal of the child’s safety and best interests.
If you are an attorney or a DHS worker, make sure the parents know and understand the “why” behind what you are asking them to do. While it may be self-evident to you, it may notbe to the parent who views DHS as the adversary who has taken his or her child.